History and the Courts: Fraud in France

Featured Photo: Illustration of Thérèse Humbert and Eve Humbert in the Prison for Women, Madrid upon capture. Photo Credit: The Criminocorpus Digital Library contains Archives d’anthropologie criminelle and private collections, notably P. Zoummeroff.

Originally published to LinkedIn on December 27, 2018

December 27th is the anniversary of the death of serial liar and fraudster, Thérèse Humbert (1856-1918).[1] She was born Thérèse Daurignac in France, and after marrying Frédéric Humbert, the son of the mayor of Toulouse, she managed to convince a large French bank that in 1879 she saved the life of an imaginary (unbeknownst to the bank) American millionaire, Robert Henry Crawford, who had suffered a heart attack in the next compartment of a train they were on in France. Her story also included the amazing account of her getting into his compartment by climbing outside the train through his window. (Who would believe this story?!)

Thérèse continued her story that when Crawford died two years later, she claimed to have received a letter stating that he had remembered her in his will and left her a substantial but undisclosed inheritance, which would be kept for her in a safe until her sister Marie was old enough to marry Henry Crawford, one of the deceased Crawford’s nephews. This dubious story enabled her to borrow enough money to buy a large house on Paris’ fashionable Avenue de la Grande Armée. She opened a salon which was a place for social climbing, and spent lavishly.

When Jules Bizat, official for the Crédit Lyonnais bank, asked Thérèse how she had invested her money, she claimed that she invested in government bonds, however, Bizat checked and found this to be false. Thérèse had organized a generous pension plan she had named Rente Viagère to get more money and used it to pay her debts and buy bonds.

In 1901, Humbert’s creditors sued her and won, and the next year the Parisian court gave an order that the fabled safe would be opened to prove the existence of the money, and all they found in the safe was a brick and an English halfpenny. The fraud scandal shocked the French financial world, and thousands of smaller creditors and investors were ruined. In 1902, the Boston Evening Transcript ran a newspaper article about the international scandal, citing that the loans were upwards of $12 million. Which, in 2018, would be worth $351 million.

The Humberts fled France, but were arrested in Madrid in December 1902. Thérèse Humbert was tried and sentenced to five years’ hard labour. Her two brothers, who had masqueraded as Crawford’s nephews in previous trials to claim her story was legitimate, were sentenced to two and three years each. Her husband Frédèric was also sentenced to five years hard labour. Her sister Marie, daughter Eve, and deceased father-in-law, the justice minister Gustave Humbert, were stated to be victims of the fraud.

There have been two rumours as to the fate of this fraudster. One story is that she immigrated to the United States to flee the angry mobs and died in Chicago in 1918. The other story is that she was still living, but poorly, in 1930 in Paris.

[1] Sabrina Imbler, “The Parisian Fraudster With Complicated Tales of Imaginary Millionaires,” Atlas Obscura, 2019, <https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/who-was-therese-humbert-scammer&gt;; Strange Company, “The Great Expectations of Thérèse Humbert,” Strange Company Blog, 2015, <http://strangeco.blogspot.com/2015/12/the-great-expectations-of-therese.html&gt;

Published by AncestryByAlicia

After obtaining my Master of Arts degree in History, and working on my genealogy for over 13 years, I decided to write about interesting historical matters from not only my family, but other interesting tidbits as well. I also research and present free walking tours in my city, including "Haunted Oshawa" and "Murder and Mayhem in Oshawa." I am currently writing two books. One is a historical account of small-town murders in Ontario. The other is a historical novel about the Royal African Company's James Fort on the Gambia River, 1715-1740.

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